Ignorance of history is an invitation to its nightmarish recurrence, so the saying goes, but when has knowledge ever served as a talisman against the fatalism of human nature? If each instance of generational violence is an aberration, a consequence of the particular circumstances of its occurrence, then history can be read as a series of biographies, but if violence is the architect of civilization, then in tracing its expressions, we discern, like diagnosing a pathogen from its visible symptoms, a bit more confidently what kind of creatures we are.
Stu Watson’s debut collection, Communicatingroups, transects Western history, tracing the transmission of bloodshed epoch to epoch, locating evil as much in what we do to one another as in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Watson is the founder and editor of Prelude, the much-lauded NYC-based poetry magazine, along with its corresponding imprint, Prelude Books. With the publication of Communicatingroups, he has established himself as an accomplished poet in his own right.
We communicated by email.
AUSTIN ADAMS: Much of Communicatingroups is a treatment of historical violence, bringing themes as diverse as the early history of the English Empire and the jailhouse interviews of Ted Bundy into conversation. While no line serves as thesis, “…what forces do we shape as much as find their ends in us…” seems a primary concern. Does the book attempt a theory of the centrality of violence in civilization?
STU WATSON: I think civilization is kind of a loaded term, but in brief, yes, you’ve hit on one of the main concerns of this book, which is to trace out the intersections of violence, political power, and myth, and the way these forces shape the lives of ordinary individuals, sometimes overtly, but often indirectly. The question of what I have called elsewhere (in my dissertation, which I am currently revising) the extent to which we as humans are able to “consciously shape the unconscious ends that drive us” is a central preoccupation for me; inundated by images and information, how can we ensure that we are agents of our own evolution as individuals, and not merely the victims of processes about which we know little and control not at all? If violence is such an ever-present element in the past, is there any hope for us, as a polity, species, element within a larger ecological system, that we might transcend it, or are we just doomed to newer iterations, to frustrating repetitions of these structures? The title of the book is meant to invoke the idea of “communicable disease,” that violence is almost a pathogen for us, that we transmit it to each other wittingly and perhaps unwittingly even as we are crushed in the process, forced, as a group, into more and more coercive forms of communication.
What is your dissertation thesis? How do your academic concerns relate to your aesthetic ambitions?
I’m working on using cybernetics, the 20th-century study of information as first theorized by Norbert Wiener, as a means of looking at the programmatic writings of poets from the Romantic period, hoping to break down some of our beliefs about the relationship between the mechanical and the natural, the empirical and the ideal, in those writers. The main poets I’m considering are Wordsworth, Coleridge, Longfellow, and Emerson, so there’s a transatlantic element at play too, attempting to work out what the connections are between English and American writers, and further thinking about how the different political contexts of those countries impact the vision for poetical reform offered in texts like the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, The Song of Hiawatha, and Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” among other things.
In a way I see my aesthetic and academic interests as being complementary, the one feeding into the other, and in fact, there is a degree to which, in Communicatingroups at least, I am attempting to practice “academia by other means,” thinking through transformations driven by changes in technology and forms of political systems in a freer, less rigidly constrained environment. Poetry and visual art both offer me a kind of escape valve when the difficulties of academic writing become overwhelming, as they often do, but I’ve had to curtail my creative efforts a bit lately as I try to actually finish this project, upon which I have been working for too long.
The narrative thread and thematic commonalities among the pieces suggest they were written with the finished book in mind. Were they? Or is that colloquy a product of the peculiar gravity of your interests at the time?
Yes, the book was actually written in the order in which it is presented, with edits along the way of course; some sections from the initial version of the manuscript that I began submitting in 2015 were removed from subsequent versions, but these pieces were always meant to be encountered together. Some of the prose poems from the middle sections have appeared individually in journals, but even they were written linearly. There are actually two further manuscripts that were written in the same style after this one was complete, that I have begun submitting around — given it took me almost five years to find a home for this book, it might be a while before those appear! In the meantime I have shifted most of my creative focus to printmaking and painting, finding myself often without words in the era of non-stop stupidity and mendacity in which we find ourselves, politically.
A list of documentary sources cited is provided at the end of the book. What about the subjects of these pieces — warmongers, serial killers, tyrants or their survivors — initiated the drafting of Communicatingroups? Do the particular stories of these emperors, these murderers, haunt you, or do you see them more as instantiations of evil in a culture that boasts a rich legacy of violence?
This book actually began as a series of notes I took as I was watching various YouTube videos alone in my apartment, beginning sometime in 2014. Usually I’d be working on another project simultaneously, but when something from the videos struck me I would write down those phrases and bits of language, and over several years, these jottings expanded into the book. The themes present, history, crime, violence, domination, were mainly the subjects of the videos recommended to me by the YouTube algorithm, and these reflect long held interests in “extremes of behavior” that I’ve found myself drawn to and simultaneously repulsed by. Since I was young I’ve been obsessed with history, attempting, within my mind, to construct a kind of map of everything of note that has ever happened — an obviously impossible task, but one that has tended to draw me more towards areas under-covered in primary school education; this is particularly true of my interest in the early English material you mentioned above, though obviously the book ventures into more well-trodden areas as well, including the aftermath of World War II, the life of Julius Caesar, and yes, the crimes and life of Ted Bundy. I remember visiting Florida as a child not long before Bundy’s execution, seeing news reports about this seemingly “normal guy” who had committed an enormous number of heinous crimes, and being terrified of him — to the extent that, when I first encountered Married… with Children not long afterwards I was actually afraid of it, so strong had my negative associations with the name “Bundy” become. I also recall a similar, uncanny feeling when hearing about the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown having occurred on “Bundy Drive,” though obviously this was just a coincidence, I think!
In writing about these monstrous people, yes, I am attempting something of a personal purgation, confronting figures that terrified me as a child, attempting to fit them into my internalized map of reality, and by so doing, perhaps, gain some measure of “control” (however illusory) over them.
What is the impetus to transcribe lengthy portions of Bundy’s confession? Do you see those passages as documentary interludes in a piece that investigates and provides (albeit a harrowing) aesthetic situating of history, or do you think that by including them in the text their content is subsumed by the project of the book? Whose voice do you intend the reader to hear through those passages — Bundy’s or yours? What do you see as the role and responsibilities of a writer mediating the voice of a murderer?
The whole Bundy section is a by-ear transcription derived from various interviews he gave while imprisoned. Some are from his time in Colorado awaiting trial for murder there, while others come out of his final, pre-execution “confessions,” confessions in which he goes out of his way to confess to as little as possible; since the Netflix documentary about him aired a few years ago more people have become aware of his specific, enormous monstrosity, but as I mentioned earlier, he’s haunted me for a long time personally. As for whose voice one is meant to hear, I would say that, in general, I’m skeptical of projecting on author’s voice out onto his/her/their poems, even as, in the case of documentary poems, I’m wary of just “accepting” the voice as being purely that of the quoted subject — the voice of the poem always exists in a state of mediation, skirting the line between author and subject, but also author and reader. By juxtaposing the Bundy confessions with the King Arthur material, I’m pointing in the direction of an association we might find between our legendary ancient leaders and our modern monsters, suggesting the violence that links them but also highlighting the ways violence undergirds even our most treasured cultural myths and institutions, even if those same myths can be made into wholesome cartoons when looked at from another angle.
As for mediating the voice of a murderer, that’s a difficult question; what strikes me about Bundy’s tone in the confessions is his apparent disbelief in recounting his own actions, the enormous difficulty he has in stating plainly what happened, the stutters, the attempts at minimization and evasion. This, pitted against the astonishing detail with which he actually remembers, reveals something for me, something about shame, but also something about the nature of content, how, when said in a certain way, even the most monstrous acts can come to see completely mundane.
Within the conversation among historical sources, a personal act of sexual coercion apparently perpetrated against you is described. Was this scene the encounter that spurred the broader investigation of violence, or is its inclusion meant to locate private, personal violence within the larger social narrative of the evil men do to one another?
I think the latter of these two options is more in line with my own thinking on this, though it’s difficult to say the degree to which the traumas we’ve experienced in our own lives directly impact our later creative outputs. But in this case I was looking to link my own experiences with those that the book charts, to make it clear where my sympathies lie (i.e. not with the perpetrators of these acts!). This was one of the reasons why, despite his words being used in the text, I don’t name Bundy except in the notes at the end of the book.
My intention in thinking about violence is not to glorify it, which is a problematic thing to achieve — the burying of Bundy’s name was one way of attempting this. At other points I refer to Mudgett, which was the given surname of the American con artist and serial killer known popularly as H. H. Holmes. Invariably some will question the wisdom of talking about these well-known killers in the first place, but this was the material I chose to write about, and like so many true crime podcasters, I like to think of myself as being on the side of the victims, the losers in these struggles for domination, however misguided some readers might find that.
The rise of true crime as a genre has definitely informed my choice of topic here, and I wonder to what extent the heightened interest in such crimes that has manifested over the last decade or so, perhaps best exemplified by the popularity of the first season of Serial, reflects on our desire to move beyond such a world. The lurid, the horrific, the terrifying have always been an element of poetry, thinking back to some of the poems of Edgar Allan Poe or the sublimely transgressive work of Lautreamont, Maldoror, and that is a line of writers, at least in Communicatingroups, I see myself as belonging to, however different, formally speaking, my own work is from theirs.
What do you think closely observed art offers on the subject of true crime that pure documentary doesn’t?
I think, as with what I said above about academic writing, because poetry isn’t bound by the same restraints, the same need to be factually accurate all the time, that in a book like this one might find these topics addressed in a more open manner; though there are elements of narrative here, in a book of poetry, or long poem, or however one might construe what this book is, one can simply point in the direction of associations and ways of relating different events without having to nail everything down behind a fixed narrative. I still listen to a few true crime podcasts, but for the most part at this point, “I get it.” Once you’ve listened to a thousand podcasts or watched a thousand YouTube videos about crime, you start to notice patterns, to know what to expect, and the sense of actually “acquiring new knowledge” is lost. Plus, now that I’ve turned this interest into a book, I no longer really have the “I’m researching this for a book” excuse to justify my continued attention to these matters. As with conspiracy theories, or pulp novels, or comic books (all things I’ve been interested in at various points), after a while it all becomes rote, predictable, and while at moments that can be very comforting, the stagnation one begins to feel in re-encountering the same situations with slightly different characters can become “unhelpful.”
I think of this book, in an odd way, as a kind of autobiography of a period of my life, not because it necessarily discloses that much personal information about me, though there is some, but because it speaks to a period that was, in a way, dominated by these texts, by thinking about these situations and trying to make them cohere into some kind of logical totality. Similarly, over time, listening to podcasts, your listenership becomes less about the crimes covered and more about your relationship to the hosts, to the glimpses you catch into their personal lives, their opinions, their political views on matters utterly unrelated to the topics covered in their programs.
One of my favorite true crime podcasts is The Generation Why, which is hosted by two gentleman who are a bit older than I am and live in Kansas City. In my day to day life living and working in New York, I don’t encounter too many Midwesterners from my age group, at least, obviously, none who are still living in the Midwest, so hearing the hosts Aaron and Justin muse about what’s going on in their neck of the woods has become my primary reason for continuing to listen; podcast hosts are like intimate friends you have never, and perhaps should never, meet. Another podcast I’ve been a long-time fan of is Red Handed, which is made by two women living in the UK who, again, have a very different perspective on things than I do just based on their living where they do, having grown up where they grew up, and I take a lot of pleasure in picking up on their subtle differences in perspective as they narrate what are often already familiar (to me) stories. I hope my book can give a reader a similar glimpse into me and my life, that is, one that is oblique but also revelatory.
Linocut prints, created by you, punctuate the text. They depict several of the historical figures the book deals with. Fashioned in a distinctive style — as if roughly hewn by broad slashes — some of the figures look agonized; others are identifiable only by their clothing or setting, their faces inscrutable. What is their relationship to the text?
At the beginning of 2017 a number of forces came together in my life that led to my taking up an artistic practice I had largely abandoned over the previous decade — the last linocuts I’d made, prior to working on these, were executed in 2007. The pieces that illustrate the text were made with the text in mind, and the raw, intense quality of the lines was an attempt at capturing, in a different medium, the energy and intensity of the stories with which the book deals. Some of the faceless characters are meant as proxies for those silenced by the catastrophes and monstrosities cataloged in the book, the absence of a mouth standing, in an extremely literal way, for their voicelessness.
The book is divided into three sections, each preceded by a different symbol — an omega, a backwards S, and what appears to be an Arabic z. What are these letters?
All of the letters were representations of finality, the backwards “S” an antiquated form of our letter “Z.” They are in there as notes to finality, to the final nature of death and to our boundedness. They also, I think, speak to the belated quality I find in not only literature but in so much art as we ebb into the post-post-modern period. I also just liked the idea of opening a book with an omega, declaring, at the outset, that we are already somehow beyond the end.
Could you speak to that belated quality? Insofar as broad prognostication is possible, the list of topics that will occupy this emergent generation of writers seems already written in part: climate change, rising reactionary sentiment, disruptive technology, pandemic-lit. But what it isn’t yet clear is what sort of aesthetic approach will command authority. How would you describe your own practice, and how do you locate it within contemporary poetics?
The interesting thing about my own practice is that it can vary so widely. Prior to this project, I was writing a biographical poem about Lord Byron in ottava rima stanza, patterned on Byron’s own Don Juan, so this move into a primarily unmetered, largely prose based poetic style caught me somewhat by surprise, but I think I made this transition in part in order to feel like my work was, stylistically, relevant, that I wasn’t just engaged in a kind of nostalgic “form for form’s sake” type endeavor. I suspect, and having edited Prelude for some six years now I have some knowledge of these matters beyond my own writing, we’ll see more poets integrating graphs, charts, and alternative forms of display into their work, that poetry will attempt to do some of the work of advocacy and awareness-raising that politics and journalism seem to be unable to accomplish in the face of these crises, those here and those just beyond the horizon. I also feel like visual poetry is on the rise, that the era of the single block of text scrolling down the page is perhaps fading, though who can say. Some of the poets I’m most excited by are working in the UK right now, writers like Verity Spott, Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady, Stuart Calton, Joe Luna, Luke Roberts, and Aaron Kent, and they are all committed, in various ways, to advocating intensely for working class people, creating a Marxist poetics that pushes against the stodginess and uptightness of mainstream British society. Those are the kind of developments I’d like to see more of, especially at this moment in American culture, people engaging in their poems with the problems of the world, attempting to identify the various ways we’re all being gripped and crushed by the ideological gauntlet of capital.
Should the book be read before the reader familiarizes themselves with the documentary sources you draw on? What’s the relationship between knowledge and comprehension in highly allusive art like this?
I don’t think it’s necessary for a reader to look at the documentary sources listed at the back to fully appreciate the book, I included the references more in the spirit of documenting sources, as one would in an academic paper, giving credit, where possible, to the creators of the content out of which this book springs. I don’t think a detailed knowledge of the crimes or characters mentioned in Communicatingroups is necessary to “get” what I’m going for, though the films, particularly the PBS H. H. Holmes documentary and the video on the death of Julius Caesar, are quite well done and worth watching for their own sake.
How has YouTube served you during quarantine? What have you been watching and reading?
I’ve been at my parents’ house in Connecticut for some 50 days now, and the environment is, while exceedingly pleasant, less conducive to my Brooklyn habit of just watching YouTube videos all day long, so I’ve in fact not been keeping up with my YouTube subs at all, have completely stopped watching documentaries and recap videos, have found myself instead drawn back to reading comic books, mostly. Perhaps this is a predictable regression to childhood, but comics also unite two of my main interests, narrative and the visual arts, so there’s maybe something beyond mere nostalgia I get out of re-engaging with works I last read when I was eleven, but who knows?! Mostly I’ve been trying to finish these dissertation revisions, and when not doing that, I’ve been rewatching a few old favorite shows from the last decade, most recently Jon Glaser’s masterpiece of slapdash insanity, Delocated. I can honestly say I’m not much interested in crime these days, but that interest has a way of coming back around, like my interest in the Kennedy Assassination. Every few years I go through a phase where I review all the recent books, all the “scholarship,” all the docs, and I always come out thinking Oswald did it alone, but the portal it opens for me into the world of Texas, New Orleans, Cuba, 1963, all these places, that era, that is what I get out of it, that is what helps to quench my frankly idiotic desire to learn as much as I can about the past.
Finally, how’s Prelude coping with quarantine? Is there a new issue in the works?
Prelude is going well; we have a new digital issue in the works, and are trying to figure out the feasibility of putting out a new print issue, though that has been delayed by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, with printers closed, distribution outlets closed, etc. But I’d like to do at least one more physical issue if it’s possible, before shifting the focus entirely to digital. I’ve been working as more of the managing editor the last two years or so, with my colleague Armando Jaramillo Garcia handling most of the big decisions about acceptances and what poets get published when in what order. Armando has been great, and his addition to the staff has been really helpful because after five years of running a magazine with just one other person (my other founding editor and longtime collaborator Robert C.L. Crawford has stepped into a contributing editor role, though he still helps out tremendously when we need him to), one can get a bit burned out, come to doubt one’s ability to tell what poems work for what the journal is attempting to do. So, we’re coping as best we can, and will continue to post new work quarterly as long as possible.